Russia’s queer democratisation


LGBT people in Russia face a daily battle with homophobia and discrimination, and the decision to ban tomorrow's Gay Pride is but a symbol of that. Yet a new generation of activists give many reasons to be optimistic, writes Augusto Come. Their determined fight for rights is playing an important part in a more general democratisation of the country.

Augusto Come
27 May 2011

Russia is one of the states where loving differently is still a nightmare. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, homophobia and discrimination in both state and society still haunt millions of Russian LGBT.

In Soviet times, homosexuality was viewed as a morally degenerative pathology of Western bourgeois societies, incompatible with the ideal of the new Soviet man. It was portrayed as socially unacceptable, punished criminally and treated medically. The Communist collapse seemed to hold much hope in this regard. Indeed, there was good news to come: in 1993, the infamous Article 121 of the Criminal Code, banning same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults, was abrogated, and in 1998 homosexuality was excluded from the official list of mental diseases.

Clashing cultures

In liberal countries, Gay Pride is a festive event; in Russia
it has become a violent clash between two opposite

Unfortunately, these important steps were not the product of sudden social progressivism or sexual tolerance, but instead, asine qua non condition for the country to become a member of the Council of Europe, and to comply with the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that this promising beginning has not been followed up. Nor that Russian legislation still lacks legal measures to tackle discrimination against LGBT, promote tolerance and resolve the legal status of LGBT couples and transgender people.

Alas, this legislative situation reflects the misperceptions of large parts of the Russian society concerning homosexuality. While things are changing on this front, and there is a growing number of people — especially among the youth and the most educated citizens of the big metropolises, who are more and more tolerant of sexual minorities — homophobia is still widespread within the Russian society. Russian politicians meanwhile surf the homophobic wave without restraint, and often with colourful language. Yury Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow, did not hesitate to label the Gay Pride Parade a “Satanic act”. The homophobia of the political class often takes the form of a defence of Russian masculinity, the extreme bastion of Russian grandeur. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the charismatic leader of the Russian Liberal and Democratic Party, came to the point of accusing the US of pursuing a policy of “sexual terrorism” against straight people, aimed at weakening Russia. Political homophobia has even gone beyond such simple populist propaganda: in 2002, a draft law criminalizing sodomy was presented to the Duma (thankfully without being adopted).

“While it is difficult to identify the original direction of causality between society’s homophobia and that of Russia’s political class, it seems clear that they form a vicious circle nourishing the spiral of intolerance”

Most concerning, however, is not the existence of homophobic parties, but the lack of any political force prepared to counterbalance them. Even "progressive" opposition parties, like Yabloko, are careful not to speak in support of the LGBT cause. And while it is difficult to identify the original direction of causality between the homophobia of society and that of its political class, it seems clear that they form a vicious circle nourishing the spiral of intolerance in Russia today.

Russia's queer revolution

Until recently, systematic discrimination and pervasive homophobia did not provoke a serious reaction from the LGBT community. On the contrary, from the 1990s to early 2000s, the community displayed a degree of lethargy that undermined the very existence of a real LGBT movement in Russia. Several LGBT organizations were certainly working in the country throughout this period, but their activities were limited to local initiatives on public health issues, like the fight against AIDS/HIV. Put simply, there was no body capable of carrying out a political fight in defence of LGBT rights on national level.

The late Igor Kon, Russia’s most distinguished sexologist, explained this social passivity by the fact that “the repeal of criminal prosecution, the ability to satisfy their sexual affinities without hindrance, and the fact that they had their own subculture and entertainment industry (clubs, discotheques, etc.) were sufficient conditions to provide for [their] social well-being”. That social peace was destined not to last long.

In 2005, a little-known LGBT rights group called “GayRussia” announced their intention to hold first ever Gay Pride Parade in Russian history. The effect was explosive, and the immediate response of the local Moscow authorities (as in all subsequent years) was to ban the event. Yet prohibition has not prevented dozens of activists turning up to the events, often in the face of aggressive policing and homophobic counterdemonstrations by ultraorthodox Christian and nationalist groups. What in liberal countries is a festive event, in Russia takes the shape of a dramatic and violent clash between two opposite worldviews.

“The struggle of “GayRussia” has acquired a much broader meaning. It is no longer only a fight for the rights of a minority, but a fight that concerns Russian democracy as a whole. The time has come for Russian democrats to understand it.”

Thanks to its pioneering work on Pride and other LGBT issues, GayRussia has managed to position itself as the leading advocate of LGBT rights in Russia. Not everyone in the human rights movement agree with their approach: some accuse its 34-year old figurehead, Nikolai Alekseev, of deliberately offending Russia’s sensitive society through overly provocative campaigns. However, it is undeniable that this new generation of activists has managed to successfully bring LGBT rights to the centre of political and societal debate. In this sense, the Moscow Gay Pride has been a winning strategy.

Alekseev believes that as a result of his activist work, “many more Russians have understood that gays and lesbians are no different from anyone else, and may be even more advanced, more ready to fight for their rights, even if that means opposing the powerful, the extremists and the legal authorities.” Whether that is true and mentalities have already begun to change remains to be seen. What is, however, already certain is that the issue is no longer tucked away in the closet.

Legal battles

The provocative campaigning of GayRussia, led by activist Nikolai Alexeev, has not pleased everyone, but it has been effective.

This new visibility has been of crucial importance for an issue long considered taboo. However, it is far from being the most tangible goal achieved by Alekseev and his group. Besides organizing public demonstrations, the group has also systematically challenged the Russian state in front of international courts. It was on their petitition that on October 21, 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia and the decision to ban Moscow Gay Pride on the basis of supposed “public security” concerns. Very significantly, this was the first time in Russian history that international jurisdiction was invoked to defend the freedom of assembly (not simply as an exclusive right of the LGBT community, but as a fundamental right of all Russian citizens).

Alas, the Moscow local authorities decided to flout the European ruling, and moved, once again, to ban the 2011 Moscow Pride. This decision will have serious consequences for Russia, as infringement procedures will be initiated by the Council of Europe in order to force the country to comply with ECHR’s decision. In the last, a recalcitrant Russia would risk the suspension of the Council membership, which would be an unacceptable option for both the government and the public opinion. It would therefore seem that first authorised Russian Gay Pride is but a matter of time.

GayRussia's first legal victory, moreover, is unlikely to be its last. Many other important cases submitted by Alekseev and his friends are still pending before the ECHR. These cases concern other crucial rights at the base of any democratic society, like freedom of expression and freedom of association. It is highly likely that the ECHR judgments will once again sanction the Russian State, and advance the cause of human rights in the country. In that sense, the struggle of “GayRussia” has acquired a much broader meaning. It is no longer only a fight for the rights of a minority, but one that concerns Russian democracy as a whole. The time has come for Russian democrats to understand it.


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